Sierra Leone is an under-researched but highly instructive case study for the issue of urban violence. It is a context with high youth unemployment, limited policing capacity, limited resources and yet a low-level of urban violence in comparison to regional neighbours. As such it presents a puzzle and challenge to many theories on why urban violence occurs (or how civil war reoccurs). However, my most recent fieldwork in the capital Freetown also shows that there is a growing gang-problem in the country, with potential to seriously jeopardise future security if left unaddressed.

Local laws in Susan’s Bay informal settlement prohibit wearing gang colours © KMitton

Gang violence in Freetown has only recently caught the attention of authorities at municipal and state level. To date, policing responses have been heavily security-focused, based on deterrence through targeting gang-members for arrest and harsher sentencing. British police advisers work with Freetown police to devise effective responses to urban violence. However, little is known about Sierra Leone’s gangs and far more research is required.

My Research

A key aim of my research in Freetown is to provide the first, extensive academic study of gangs in Sierra Leone, offering a baseline for policy responses and future research. Interviews with gangs across the city have been conducted during Jan-Feb 2017, Feb-March 2018, and Jan-Feb 2019.

In 2018 I was awarded a British Academy Tackling the UK’s International Challenges research grant for ‘Life in Between: Youth Street Gangs and Marginality in Contemporary Sierra Leone.‘ Working closely with Professor Ibrahim Abdullah (Fourah Bay College), this project has produced hundreds of in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with gang members across Sierra Leone, as well as members of the police, civil society, prison service, local communities and other relevant actors. The project forms the basis for two forthcoming journal articles and a policy paper.  I am also currently shooting a documentary on cliques in collaboration with WAYout in Sierra Leone, filmed and co-produced with former street youth.

Publications and Outputs

  • Public Health and Violence’Critical Public Health, Vol. 29, Issue 2, 2019.
  •  War by Another Name? The ‘Urban Turn’ in 21st Century Violence
    T.note Vol. 59, Human Security Issue 7 – 23 April 2018 (download)
  • Guerra con un altro nome? La violenza urbana nel XXI secolo’ Human Security No. 6, March 2018. 
  • And what for future generations in Sierra Leone?
    Africa is a Country – 26 March 2018

    Co-auothored with Jamie Hitchen ahead of Sierra Leone’s 31st March 2018 run-off vote, on youth, politics, violence and hope in Sierra Leone.
  • Generation Terrorists: The Politics of Youth and the Gangs of Freetown
    Mats Utas Blog – 26 February 2018
    Extended piece about Sierra Leone’s elections, sharing initial findings on the emerging (and drastically under-researched) gang-scene in the country.
  • Rebels in a Rotten State: Understanding Atrocity in Sierra Leone
    (Oxford University Press/Hurst, 2015)
  • ‘A Pragmatic Pact: Reconciliation and Reintegration in Sierra Leone’,  in Kirsten Ainley, Rebekka Friedman & Chris Mahony (eds) Evaluating Transitional Justice: Accountability and Peacebuilding in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
  • ‘Where is the War? Explaining Peace in Sierra Leone.’
    International Peacekeeping, Vol. 30, Issue 3, 2013.
  • ‘Irrational Actors and the Process of Brutalisation: Understanding Atrocity in the Sierra Leonean Conflict (1991–2002).’
    Civil Wars, Vol. 14, Issue 1, March 2012.
  • ‘Rearmament, Remobilisation and Disintegration in Sierra Leone.’
    Conflict Security and Development Research Group, King’s College London (2010).
  • ‘Engaging disengagement: The political reintegration  of Sierra Leone’s  Revolutionary United Front’ in Reintegrating Armed Groups after Conflict: Politics, Violence and Transition, Mats Berdal & David Ucko, eds. (Abingdon: Routledge, May 2009).
  • ‘Reconstructing Trust in Sierra Leone.’
    The Round Table, Volume 98, Issue 403, August 2009
  • ‘Engaging Disengagement: The Political Reintegration of Sierra Leone’s
    Revolutionary United Front.’
    Conflict, Security and Development, Volume 8, Issue 2, June 2008

Header image: Members of Blood gangsters prepare cannabis for sale, Freetown, Sierra Leone, February 2018 © Kieran Mitton.